Social decisions often require trading off benefits for ourselves against costs for other people. When and how people forgo self-interest for others’ sake – even when no one is watching – remains an enduring puzzle. Our work investigates how benevolent and malevolent motives are expressed in social decisions. We have found that people are more reluctant to profit from harming others than themselves, that ill-gotten gains are worth less in the brain, and that moral behavior can be manipulated with commonly prescribed medications. New projects are exploring the psychological and neural mechanisms of dishonesty, self-deception, hypocrisy, and social influence on moral decisions. The goal of this research is to discover new ways to promote moral behavior. We collaborate with philosophers to explore the ethical implications of our findings.
Social Learning and Impression Formation
Learning about the moral character of others – whether a potential friend, romantic interest or business partner is trustworthy, helpful and caring – is crucial for building successful social relationships. Understanding the mechanisms of social learning may shed light on why some people are consistently able to cultivate healthy, long-lasting relationships, while others repeatedly find themselves in unhealthy or failed relationships. We have shown that people readily infer others’ character from observing their moral judgments and decisions, that compassion influences how people update their beliefs about others, and that exposure to violence disrupts moral impression formation and trust behavior. Current projects are investigating how social learning is impaired in personality disorders. Our goal is to develop precise computational tools for diagnosing social impairments in mental illness and predicting their prognosis. Our work in this area adopts a computational psychiatry approach, and we collaborate with clinical psychologists to study social learning in patient populations.
Moral Emotions in the Digital Age
Moral outrage is an ancient emotion that is now widespread on digital media and online social networks. We are investigating how these new technologies change the expression of moral emotions and their social consequences. Moral emotions are optimized for a social environment very different from the one we live in today. Just as our appetite for fat and sugar makes self-control more difficult in a food landscape filled with burgers and soda, so, too, might our taste for outrage be wrecking our relationships in the age of social media. We have found that outrage-inducing content appears to be more prevalent and potent online than offline, and are currently investigating how the design of social media platforms contributes to the virality of moral emotions and political polarization. The goal of this work is to develop solutions for reducing incivility, disinformation and propaganda online.